Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called "today," that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
(Hebrews 3:12-13 ESV)
Nothing is more critical to our ongoing progress in holiness than maintaining genuine communion with God in our souls. We enjoy this fellowship with God as our hearts exercise faith upon the person and work of Christ and experience the enlivening influences of the grace and power of the Spirit in our hearts.
The primary means of keeping this faith alive are prayer and meditation. I don’t mean any legalistic notion of a daily quiet time, which can so easily become an empty form or duty, but rather the ongoing practice of God’s presence which is cultivated by frequent retreats with the Lord where we speak to him (in prayer) and he speaks to us (through the Word).
When communion with God ceases, it is invariably because our hearts have become hard. Where once there was a genuine openness and tenderness towards the Lord, now there are calluses on the soul. Sin does its deceiving and hardening work; and the soul is left in a hardened condition, adverse to communion with God.
So, the Scriptural command to “take care . . . lest there be in any of [us] an evil, unbelieving heart” is both urgent and important. “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Daily mutual exhortation is needed, because sin can so quickly deceive and harden.
So, how does sin do its work? When am I in danger of being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin? Let me offer four insights, which, though in my own words, I have drawn from John Owen’s book on indwelling sin.[i]
1. Sin deceives and hardens the heart by taking advantage of the weakness of the flesh and the weariness of the body. Jesus said, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). I have learned that I am seldom more vulnerable to temptation than when I am physically exhausted. When my body is tired, sin seizes the opportunity and says, “You deserve a break today! Come on – pamper yourself! You’ve earned it.”
The temptation is real because the need is great. Sometimes we genuinely need to “come away . . . and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). But sin can hijack the valid need for rest and recreation for its own deceptive ends. When the need for rest with one’s family gets transposed into an excuse for indulging in illicit sexual fantasies, sin has done its work. The soul is deceived, the heart is hardened, and communion with God is broken.
2. Sin deceives and hardens the heart by distracting us with other good and necessary responsibilities. We have many responsibilities in life. If we are not careful, we can become swamped with the pressures and responsibilities of working hard in our vocations, meeting the needs of our families, serving people in our church and community, and maintaining our homes and property. All these are good and necessary things. But they are not the main thing.
When Martha was anxiously attending to her household duties and complained to Jesus of Mary’s negligence in helping, Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42). In normal circumstances, God gives us enough time to meet all of our responsibilities without neglecting to care for our souls and maintain communion with God. If we find ourselves overcommitted, we should repent and reorder our priorities.
But it is also possible that busy-ness is the by-product of barrenness. The distraction of “many things” can be a thin cover for the hollowness of soul that comes from neglecting the “good portion” of sitting at Jesus’ feet. Brothers and sisters, beware of busy-ness!
3. Sin deceives and hardens the heart by substituting other spiritual duties for the personal and private work of watching the heart and maintaining fellowship with God. As a pastor, I live much of my life doing “spiritual” things like leading in public prayer, reading the Scriptures, and preaching sermons. Sin deceives by suggesting that since I’ve prayed at church, I need not pray in private. Or, since we had family devotions, personal time in the Word can be safely skipped.
This is a subtle danger that fails to take into account the unique importance of personally seeking the Lord through prayer and meditation. There is heart work to be done alone that simply cannot be done in public. As valuable as public spiritual duties are, they are no substitute for personal spiritual disciplines.
4. Sin deceives and hardens the heart by making empty promises to seek the Lord later. Procrastination is one of sin’s greatest weapons. If we can be drawn away from the immediate conviction to pray, it will take little to keep us from prayer later. How many of us, feeling the strong impulse to spend significant time in the Word or prayer, have put it off for a more convenient time – only to later find ourselves without motivation?
The deceptive methods of sin are many: exhaustion, distraction, substitution, procrastination. So what is the remedy? The passage suggests two. First, “Take care” of your soul. Watch and pray. Practice the presence of God. Beware of the slow, indiscernible encroachment of unbelief. Be diligent in availing yourself of the means of grace. Second, “Exhort one another every day.” Stay connected to a community of believers who can help watch your soul. Let your small group in on your struggles and learn to receive their counsel and exhortation. Be a part of a mutual admonition society.
[i] John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation, edited by Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006) 306-315.